Super Bowl counterprogramming
Although it is consistently one of the most watched television programs in the United States annually, broadcasters have sometimes attempted to intentionally counterprogram against the Super Bowl by running new programming against the game as an alternative, such as special episodes of existing series, one-off special presentations, and previews of new series, typically during its halftime break.
The most prominent success of the concept came in 1992, when Fox broadcast a special, live edition of its sketch comedy program In Living Color during halftime at Super Bowl XXVI, taking advantage of the then-unpopular format of Super Bowl halftime shows, successfully drawing 22 million viewers, and prompting the NFL to book more prominent pop music acts to compete.
Broadcasters who do not air original programming against the Super Bowl will typically air reruns of existing programming—sometimes as marathons, prior to and during the game; in recent years, as they all broadcast NFL games or have ties to an outlet who does—and three of them alternate airing the game yearly—the United States' four major television networks have rarely broadcast new programming against the Super Bowl in an effort to protect the game's viewership as a sign of respect.
The practice was popularized by Fox: in the 1970s and 1980s, the majority of Super Bowl halftime shows were themed, musical spectacles that often featured marching bands and performance ensembles such as Up with People (who performed in four Super Bowl halftime shows between 1976 and 1986 and performed at the pre-game show of Super Bowl XXV in 1991). The group's halftime shows were described as being "wholesome" and "inoffensive" by critics, but were frequently lambasted for being dated and out of touch with modern popular culture—through this era, halftime shows involving Up With People received heavy critical derision.
As an alternative, the then-fledging Fox aired a special live episode of its popular sketch comedy show In Living Color during halftime at Super Bowl XXVI (which featured a halftime show entitled "Winter Magic", a Winter Olympics-themed show starring Gloria Estefan). The live episode featured football-themed sketches (such as a football version of the recurring Men on...) and a clock counting down to the start of the third quarter. Frito-Lay served as the main sponsor of the broadcast, paying $2 million to hold all national advertising slots, and to help budget and promote the special. The special also included the announcement of a million-dollar winner in an accompanying contest. A CBS executive felt that the concept was "cute", but dismissed concerns that the ambush would have any major impact on the viewership of the Super Bowl. The special drew between 20 million and 25 million viewers; Nielsen estimated that CBS lost 10 ratings points during halftime as a result of the special.
The unexpected success of the In Living Color special prompted the NFL to take steps to prevent the further loss of viewers at halftime during future games. Beginning at Super Bowl XXVII on NBC, the league began to invite major pop music performers to perform during the halftime show. The first of these, featuring Michael Jackson, led to a dramatic increase in viewership between halves—the first in the game's history. This practice continued until 2005; after an incident occurred at Super Bowl XXXVIII's halftime show where Justin Timberlake briefly exposed one of Janet Jackson's breasts, a string of subsequent halftime shows featuring a single, headlining classic rock act were held instead, until the return of pop acts in 2011, which was also broadcast on Fox.
Even still, the league has continued to stay true to its goal of ensuring that the halftime show is as much of a spectacle as the game itself. Super Bowl halftime shows rank as the most watched non-sports entertainment telecast in the U.S. annually since the 1992-1993 season. Moreover, counterprogramming against the Super Bowl has since been heavily discouraged after in December 1993, Fox acquired rights to the NFL's National Football Conference (NFC). The NFC was previously televised by CBS, and then by Fox beginning in the 1994 season, in a notable coup that helped to establish the network's position as a major network in its own right.
As all four major U.S. television networks currently have ties to the NFL and broadcast its games (CBS, Fox, and NBC alternate airing the Super Bowl yearly and air regular season games, and ABC's parent company owns ESPN, which broadcasts Monday Night Football during the regular season, and has simulcast its wild card playoff game on ABC since 2016), Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Tribune believed that there was a gentleman's agreement between the networks not to air new programming against the Super Bowl. He argued that there was now "zero likelihood some broadcast network is going to launch a broadside against the NFL's showcase." As such, the networks not airing the game will typically air reruns of existing programs. Fox provided an exception in 2010, when it aired new episodes of 'Til Death during the game as part of its effort to quietly burn off the series in unconventional time slots (such as having aired a marathon of four new episodes on Christmas Day), in order to reach enough episodes for syndication.
Counterprogramming efforts are not limited to television; for Super Bowl XLV in 2011, WCHK-FM, a station in the Green Bay, Wisconsin area announced it would counterprogram the game with dead air, since the hometown Packers were in the game. However, its goal was not to attract listeners from the game, but to do the opposite. The freeform program Anything Anything with Rich Russo has counterprogrammed the Super Bowl with Dr. Demento. Counterprogramming expanded to the internet in 2015, when YouTube announced that it would broadcast an alternative, online halftime show featuring notable personalities from the video sharing service.
List of notable Super Bowl halftime counterprograms
In regards to original programming, recurring Super Bowl counters have included Animal Planet's annual Puppy Bowl, a special featuring dogs at play in a model football stadium (which itself spawned imitators—the Kitten Bowl and Fish Bowl, in 2014), and the Lingerie Bowl, a series of pay-per-view broadcasts of all-female football games played in lingerie—proving popular enough to be expanded into its own Lingerie Football League with the Lingerie Bowl as its championship game. The LFL has since re-launched as a more conventional women's football league, the Legends Football League, and moved its season to run during the NFL off-season instead.
During the 1990s, MTV was a recurring provider of counterprogramming, having scheduled new episodes of Beavis and Butt-head against the halftime show on multiple occasions. In 1998 and 1999, MTV aired "Deathbowl" episodes of a new stop-motion animated series, Celebrity Deathmatch, which features celebrities competing in wrestling bouts. The 1998 airing was followed by a series premiere in May: in the spirit of the Super Bowl airings, it was scheduled to air against the series finale of Seinfeld.
On the day of the Super Bowl, cable channels often air special, and sometimes themed marathons of existing programming prior to and/or during the game, such as Cartoon Network having aired a marathon of 2 Stupid Dogs that it dubbed the "Stupid Bowl", and DIY Network broadcasting a marathon of bathroom-related programming known as the "Toilet Bowl". During Super Bowl XLV, as Canadian Super Bowl broadcaster CTV did not hold rights to Fox's lead-out Glee, series rightsholder Global aired a marathon of Glee-themed programming (including previous episodes, and Glee-themed episodes of other series) against the game to lead into the simulcast of the new episode "The Sue Sylvester Shuffle" after the game.
|XXVI||1992||Fox||In Living Color||"Doritos Zaptime/In Living Color Super Halftime Party"|
|XXVIII||1994||MTV||Beavis and Butt-head||"Butt Bowl"|
|XXIX||1995||MTV||Beavis and Butt-head||"Party", "Wet Behind The Rears"|
|XXX||1996||MTV||Beavis and Butt-head|
|XXXI||1997||MTV||Beavis and Butt-head||"Butt, Butt, Hike!", "Vaya Con Cornholio"|
|XXXII||1998||MTV||Celebrity Deathmatch||"Deathbowl '98": Howard Stern vs. Kathie Lee Gifford; Pamela Anderson vs. RuPaul; Hanson vs. The Spice Girls.|
|XXXIII||1999||USA||WWF Sunday Night Heat||"Halftime Heat": Empty arena "I Quit" match between The Rock and Mankind.|
|MTV||Celebrity Deathmatch||"Deathbowl '99": Dolly Parton vs. Jennifer Lopez; Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield.|
|XXXIV||2000||USA||WWF Sunday Night Heat||"Halftime Heat": featured an interview with Stone Cold Steve Austin as he recovered from neck surgery.|
|XXXVI||2002||NBC||Fear Factor||Playboy Playmates edition; 11.4 million viewers|
|XXXVII||2003||NBC||Saturday Night Live, Dateline NBC||Weekend Update with Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey, aired during halftime before the final half-hour of a 90-minute Fear Factor rerun. NBC promoted that this was the first time in SNL history that the show had been broadcast live across the entire country. Fear Factor was also followed by a new Dateline NBC, and an airing of Law & Order: Criminal Intent to counter the series premiere of Alias on ABC after the game|
|XXXVIII||2004||PPV||Lingerie Bowl||An all-female football game played in lingerie, shoulder padding, and helmets, between teams of models and actresses (Team Dream and Team Euphoria) captained by Angie Everhart and Nikki Ziering, with Mike Goldberg and Amy Weber on play-by-play.|
|XXXIX||2005||PPV||Girls Gone Wild||"Girls Gone Wild Halftime Games"; promoted with the tagline "Wardrobe Malfunctions Guaranteed" (in reference to the previous year's halftime show) and co-hosted by Doug Stanhope and Zane Lamprey, the hour-long PPV special featured four teams of women participating in "nudity-inducing" obstacle challenges.|
|Animal Planet||Puppy Bowl|
|XL||2006||Animal Planet||Puppy Bowl II|
|PPV||Lingerie Bowl II|
|XLI||2007||Animal Planet||Puppy Bowl III|
|Fuse||Pants-Off Dance-Off||"Pancer Bowl I", featuring dancers stripping football clothing to the music of Super Bowl halftime performer Prince. Fuse also broadcast a "Wardrobe Malfunction Marathon" of the program on the day of the game.|
|Hallmark Channel||From the Heart: Favorite Commercials from Hallmark Cards||Aired during a marathon of Little House on the Prairie|
|PPV||Lingerie Bowl III||Lingerie Bowl III would be the final Lingerie Bowl before a three-year hiatus, resulting from the cancellation of Lingerie Bowl IV due to having reached a new, non-PPV broadcasting deal, the cancellation of Lingerie Bowl V citing "[limited] possibilities in neighboring cities" after failing to receive permits for planned side events in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the cancellation of Lingerie Bowl VI after conflicts with the host, a nudist resort, over exceptions to its clothing-optional policies. A web-based PPV of Lingerie Bowl VII was to be aired during halftime of Super Bowl XLV, but was not available to stream until an hour after the game due to server capacity problems.|
|PPV||Howard Stern's Stupid Bowl III||A flag football game between the staff of The Howard Stern Show and a group of drag queens.|
|XLII||2008||Animal Planet||Puppy Bowl IV||Seen by an average of 1.1 million viewers, an increase of 35% from the previous year.|
|Spike||Major League Eating Chowdown||Joey Chestnut eating 7.01 pounds (3.18 kg) of ham and Erik Denmark eating 61 hard-boiled eggs, both in 8 minutes. With average viewership of 863,000 viewers, this was Spike's highest-rated Major League Eating special.|
|Oxygen||Deion & Pilar: Prime Time Love||A "super-sneak preview" of the then-upcoming series starring Deion Sanders was aired against the halftime show during a marathon of Snapped. Seen by 220,000 viewers.|
|XLIII||2009||ABC||Wipeout||"Cheerleaders vs. Couch Potatoes". The half-hour special was followed by a full episode, "Wipeout Bowl I", airing at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT after the game. ABC averaged 4.2 million viewers from 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. throughout the night.|
|CBS||CBS Reports: The Road to the White House||A CBS News special chronicling the inauguration of President Barack Obama.|
|Animal Planet||Puppy Bowl V|
|XLIV||2010||Animal Planet||Puppy Bowl VI|
|Fox||'Til Death||The fourth season of 'Til Death was produced solely so it could be burned off by Fox, as its distributor would then have enough episodes to syndicate the low-rated sitcom. With 1.7 million viewers, Fox finished third behind the Super Bowl itself and a rerun of America's Funniest Home Videos in the 7:00 p.m. hour.|
|XLV||2011||Animal Planet||Puppy Bowl VII||Seen by 9.2 million viewers across all of its airings throughout the day.|
|PPV||Lingerie Bowl VII||Los Angeles Temptation vs. Philadelphia Passion at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.|
|XLVI||2012||Animal Planet||Puppy Bowl VIII||Seen by a total of over 10 million viewers, and was the 2nd most popular program of the day on social media behind the Super Bowl itself.|
|XLVII||2013||Animal Planet||Puppy Bowl IX|
|XLVIII||2014||Animal Planet||Puppy Bowl X|
|Hallmark Channel||Kitten Bowl||As a feline parallel to the Puppy Bowl, the broadcast consisted of kittens at play|
|Nat Geo Wild||Fish Bowl||As an aquatic parallel to the Puppy Bowl, the 4-hour broadcast consisted of a goldfish swimming in a bowl.|
|XLIX||2015||Animal Planet||Puppy Bowl XI|
|YouTube||YouTube Halftime Show||Co-produced by Collective Digital Studio and hosted by Epic Meal Time's Harley Morenstein, the special featured contributions by twenty YouTube "creators and musicians", and served to promote the site's AdBlitz channel.|
|Hallmark Channel||Kitten Bowl II||All of the participating kittens were named in reference to NFL players and officials. The special also featured a halftime show with "Katy Furry" in reference to the actual halftime show.|
|Discovery Life, Discovery Family, TLC||Toddler Bowl||Featured a group of toddlers competing in physical and mental challenges.|
|Nat Geo Wild||Fish Bowl II||Filmed in the setting of the Nat Geo Wild series The Incredible Dr. Pol (a marathon of Dr. Pol aired before the special as well), the second Fish Bowl was expanded to add a clownfish and farm animals as accompanyment.|
|50||2016||Animal Planet||Puppy Bowl XII|
|Hallmark Channel||Kitten Bowl III|
|Nat Geo Wild||Fish Bowl XXL|
|Fox||The X-Files||During the halftime period, Fox briefly posted preview footage on its website and social media channels for the revival's season finale.|
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